Page 3 2011-12 Summer
New baby, new beginnings
You may have read the books, been to the classes and talked to dozens of people about parenting... but it’s not really possible to understand the experience of first-time parenthood until it happens.
Expectations versus reality
During pregnancy, parents naturally anticipate how life will be with their new baby. Jean Hailes senior research fellow Dr Heather Rowe, says most parents feel under-equipped or under-skilled after the baby is born. “Having a baby is a major life change and most people experience a period of adjustment,” she explains. “It can be an anxiety-arousing time and we need practical support and emotional care from others that has not been needed before.”
Head of Jean Hailes women’s mental health program, Professor Jane Fisher, agrees. “Some aspects of parenting can’t easily be imagined – especially the number of hours that are involved in caring well for a baby and running a household in which a baby lives,” she explains. “Common questions to pregnant women like “When are you giving up work?” convey the misconception that caring for children is not work.”
Many of us imagined that there would be more flexibility and leisure time after having a baby. For most women it’s a shock to discover that their unpaid work doesn’t permit a lot of extra time to see friends, has no neat boundaries and is quite lonely. Parents may also expect that others will help more than they actually do!
The impact of a baby on your relationships
When two people become a family of three, their needs as individuals and as members of a couple are suspended in service of the baby in the short term, but it is important to work out what has been lost forever, what can be restored, perhaps in a modified way and what could not have been experienced without having a baby. “Every parent needs to learn to name their needs and then to negotiate with each other about how these can be met,” says Jane. “This inevitably requires being able to talk about the everyday tasks of cleaning, cooking and paying the bills, as well as working out how each parent is going to care for the baby. Women and men who make a good adjustment to parenthood learn to do this without being critical of differences in individual approaches or blaming each other when mistakes happen.”
Each of us brings to parenthood our experiences of receiving care when young and these can shape expectations about who does what and how decisions are made. Few contemporary couples want to divide the work in exactly the same way as their parents did, but can fall into traditional patterns without intending to. Heather says “It’s important to name the unpaid work accurately and not fall into the trap of saying that one parent is working and the other is not.”
The impact of a baby on physical health
Pregnancy and childbirth are physically demanding and women have to adjust to changes in shape, appearance and function. It is more difficult to recover from births which have involved surgery and other intrusive procedures. Confidence is slower to grow when a woman has been separated from her baby in the early hours of life. “Breastfeeding can be especially difficult to establish in these circumstances and women benefit from non-critical encouragement as they learn how to feed their babies,” Jane says.
The impact of a baby on mental health Every woman experiences losses at least temporarily when she has a baby, including: loss of occupational identity and ability to generate an income, leisure time, freedom and independence and for some, bodily integrity. However, these losses are not easily recognised and can lead to tension when women experience their partners as losing much less than they have. In addition to adjusting to these, the work of mothering is highly responsible, but can be repetitive, boring and isolated.
It is unrealistic to expect only to experience enjoyment and all women have mixed feelings, only some of which are familiar. It is important to realise that changeable emotions are a normal part of adjusting to a major life change. Confidence is more likely to grow if a woman feels competent and wellsupported in her work as a mother.
Unsettled infant behaviour
Research has shown that a woman feels more capable if her baby quiets to her soothing, suckles easily, gains weight and smiles responsively. On the other hand confidence is diminished if the baby cries for long periods and is difficult to settle or feed. Frequent overnight waking and insufficient sleep lead to occupational fatigue which is associated with slower decision-making and worse concentration. “It is taken seriously as a risk to occupational health in many professions, but is often trivialised in the work of motherhood,” says Jane.
Each baby’s temperament or characteristics are unique. These are revealed in how a baby responds to new experiences and settles and whether they have a pattern in day-to-day behaviours. Some respond to new places and people with eager interest, others with more caution. Some have a predictable pattern to waking and sleeping and in others this varies greatly from day to day. Settling a baby to sleep can be challenging. Parents have to become familiar with their baby’s tired cues, establish a predictable pre-sleep routine, help the baby become familiar with being put to bed while awake rather than asleep and re-settle if the baby wakes after a short time. This can be more difficult if the baby is accustomed to being rocked to sleep in someone’s arms.
Babies vary in the amount and intensity of crying in their first year. Parents most commonly assume that crying means that the baby is either hungry or in pain, but much crying is difficult to explain. There is growing evidence that babies who have had insufficient sleep or are overstimulated cry more intensely and for longer periods than those who are well slept and whose parents protect them from too many new experiences at one time. Parents are often told to trust their intuition in providing infant care, but caring well for a baby requires knowledge of infant development and the skills to adjust care appropriately. Caring for an unsettled infant can deplete a mother’s confidence rapidly and it is helpful for her to be shown how to soothe and settle a baby and to establish sustainable routines of daily care.
Intimate partner relationship
There is consistent evidence that the quality of a woman’s relationship with her partner is associated with her mental health. Mental health is promoted when women experience their partners as empathic, encouraging and actively involved in the care of the baby. In contrast, wellbeing is diminished if they experience criticism or irritability. Heather and Jane agree that “Dividing unpaid work in a way that feels fair, making leisure a family activity and settling the baby into a sustainable routine can go a long way towards reducing fatigue and anxiety and improving wellbeing in a mother with a new baby.”
Tips for family and friends of new parents
- Childbirth and parenting can be emotionally arousing topics. It is more helpful to ask how people are experiencing them than to offer your own accounts or unsolicited advice. For example, painful or frightening things sometimes happen during childbirth. It can be helpful to say; “Tell me what happened when your baby was born.” If a mother shares her experience with you, avoid saying; “But you have a healthy baby.” Appreciate that parents can feel delighted about the baby and at the same time have feelings of regret, loss or sadness about the baby’s birth.
- In general, it is unhelpful to make critical comparisons between the generations like, “My mother managed to bring up children and it was not a problem for her.” Instead, celebrate the shift that has occurred to a more equitable distribution of domestic tasks!
- Don’t tell parents to trust their intuition – new knowledge and skills are required to care for a baby
- Sometimes undemanding babies are labelled ‘good’ and those who are more difficult to care for are labelled ‘bad’. Babies are neither good nor bad; they are themselves!
- When you visit a new parent, ask “What can I do?”’ rather than presume what is needed. In general, it is not helpful to take over the care of the baby and it is helpful to do the washing up, prepare a meal or hang the washing out. • Don’t comment critically on care-giving or the baby...and don’t enquire when they are having another baby!
- If you’re a grandparent, be lavish in your praise and encouragement. Parents become more confident if grandparents show they’re proud of their children as new parents.
For further information:
‘What Were We Thinking’ is a project by Jean Hailes women’s mental health program. It is a carefully researched, evidence-based set of materials and activities designed to promote confidence and reduce distress in parents with a first baby. Individuals and couples can use the self-directed interactive website www.whatwerewethinking.org.au.
Content Updated November 2011